Korean Air, Asiana Step Up Efforts to Ease Fears of MERS Virus

Korean Air Lines Co. and Asiana Airlines Inc. are disinfecting planes and offering special training to cabin crew, seeking to ease passengers’ concerns as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome claims more victims in South Korea.

Korean Air is sterilizing planes that fly to its three Middle Eastern destinations before and after their flights, the airline said in an e-mailed statement Friday. Asiana is disinfecting all of its 74 aircraft, it said.

Four people in South Korea have died and 41 have been confirmed with MERS since the first case was reported May 20. Nearly 12,000 people have canceled plans to visit South Korea because of the deadly virus, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.

“The spread of MERS seems to be affecting inbound travel demand for Korean Air and Asiana,” said Um Kyung A, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul. “Still, much of that may be offset as outbound travel is expected to increase as the summer peak season has started.”

Tourism Impact

Fear of MERS could prompt travelers to choose Japan or other destinations, undermining the Korean tourism industry, Shinyoung’s Um said. So far, some 3,500 travelers from China, 700 from Taiwan, 200 from Hong Kong and 120 from Japan have canceled plans to visit, the tourism organization said.

About 4.6 million people visited South Korea in the first four months of the year, up 12 percent from a year earlier, according to the tourism organization. The largest number -- 2.1 million -- came from China, followed by 655,553 from Japan and 216,753 from Taiwan.

The first MERS case in China was a South Korean man who arrived in Hong Kong on an Asiana flight from Seoul late last month, then traveled to Huizhou in Guangdong Province. Cabin and ground crew who had contact with the man have been quarantined until June 9, according to the airline.

“To ensure safety, Asiana decided to perform additional disinfection of the passenger fleet,” Asiana said in a statement. “Asiana is trying its best to alleviate concerns about MERS among passengers.”

The airlines are training cabin crew to identify passengers who show symptoms of the disease and isolate them from others onboard. Korean Air has placed hand sanitizers and masks on its flights to Dubai, Riyadh and Jeddah.

Incheon International Airport, which serves Seoul, has stepped up efforts to prevent the spread of MERS. It has designated four gates to handle flights from the Middle East, and health checks can be conducted as passengers deplane.